PARIS — On the 150th anniversary of Charles Baudelaire’s death from a syphilis-induced cerebral hemorrhage, the flâneur, poète maudit (cursed poet) of ennui, translator of Edgar Allan Poe, and art critic is the subject of an eye-catching exhibition at the charming Musée de la Vie Romantique. Titled L’oeil de Baudelaire (Baudelaire’s eye), the show gazes upon and bolsters the dandy’s deserved reputation as a discerning and witty art critic by demonstrating his relationship to life and Romanticism — the cultural movement inspired by the writings of Edmund Burke and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others, that focused on individual passions and inner struggles. It produced a new outlook for the time through a positive emphasis on the emotional artistic imagination.
Many of Baudelaire’s art and philosophical proclamations were considered provocative, such as when he opined that everything beautiful is beautiful by calculation. The exhibition supports that claim by resuming the dialogue between Baudelaire’s critical texts and the works of art they described. Included are some strikingly beautiful paintings, including Eugène Delacroix’s tender “La Madelaine dans le désert” (Mary Madelaine in the desert, 1845), Octave Tassaert’s erotic “Nymphe couchée (Nymph in Bed, 1845), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s gallant “Tête de la Grande Odalisque” (Head of the Grande Odalisque, 1814), and Alphonse Legros’s somber “Ex-Voto” (1860). There are two painted portraits of Baudelaire, one by Émile Deroy (from 1844) and the other by Gustave Courbet (1848), which hints at the writer’s rapture with words and a sense of doom. There are also some tantalizing and salacious anonymous prints from 1830 that situate us within the brothels that Baudelaire frequented. Finally, there are the many majestic photographs of the poet, including Étienne Carjat’s “Baudelaire avec estampe” (Baudelaire with prints, 1836).
Early on, Baudelaire theorized that the painting and poetry of his day should continue in the tradition of the classical sublime but be judged according to individual, subjective reactions. His first published work was a bold and prophetic 1845 art review championing Delacroix, whom he saw as the perfect artistic representation of the age. The year after, he wrote his second art review where he established himself as a high-minded advocate of romantic critical theory by claiming that painting should emphasize emotions, while also stressing 18th-century ideas of sublimity. He also maintained that sincerity is an essential requisite of both the creator and creation, defending Delacroix against what he deemed the malice and ignorance of other critics.
For Baudelaire, a sustained interest in the contemporary world was crucial to engaging with art and poetry. Certainly, Baudelaire’s protomodern use of worldly subject matter was seen as a critique of traditional poetry and had some effect on subsequent poems, from Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1886) to modernist experimentations with form. Likely influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg, Baudelaire’s Doctrine of Correspondences outlined his belief in the synchronicity of the physical and spiritual worlds. This view, characteristic of his thought, is presented in Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” (1857), about a forest of symbols by which the poet portrays his profoundly mystical belief in the world’s basic unity. This fairly optimistic point of view is surprising, as Baudelaire had attempted suicide by that time, in 1845, and lived perilously, moving from odious hotel to hotel in the seamy sides of Paris to escape creditors. But he remained tethered to his otherworldly visions, writing Les Paradis artificiels, Opium et Haschisch (The Artificial Paradise, Opium and Hashish) in 1860 — where he resumed an interest in drugs he had first investigated in Du Vin et du haschisch (On Wine and Hashish) (1851). Notably, he never lost his keen, critical, even piercing eye — as rendered in a self-portrait drawing “Autoportrait et croquis” (Portrait and Sketches) that he drew between 1844 and 1847.
In his text “The Painter of Modern Life,” which appeared in Le Figaro in 1863, Baudelaire propounds that beauty must encompass the absolute and the particular, the eternal and the transitory. Referencing the work of the artist Constantin Guys, he maintained, with anti-classical élan, that modern life be the inspiration for art. He specifically defines art’s modernity as based in the “transitory, the fugitive, the contingent” mixed with the “eternal and immutable.” By combining the quotidian with the otherworldly, the poet gave a cosmic cast to the ordinary. A new way to inhabit time.
In his brilliant book The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard speaks of Baudelaire’s frequent use of the word “vast,” which is, Bachelard claims, one of the most Baudelairian of words: one that, for this poet, defines the infinite experience of an intimate space. Whenever Baudelaire uses the word in his writing, it is used to add grandeur to some manifestation, consideration, or fancy. It is no overstatement to say that for him, the word “vast” took on a metaphysical dimension, where the vast world and our vast thoughts are united.
In Baudelaire’s writing, the unfathomable depths of personal thought correspond to a melting of the individual’s boundaries, which were formerly sharply outlined by social convention. He embraced a new kind of awareness, put forth by Swedenborg, who posited that matter consists of particles that are indefinitely divisible and in constant swirling motion. Moreover, Swedenborg wrote voluminously about the relationship between the spiritual and the material planes, believing there was an infinite, indivisible power to life — an idea which reinforced the neo-Platonic sublime ideals of Romanticism.
Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Rimbaud openly sang Baudelaire’s praises for capturing the essence of ephemeral experience. Based on my reading of Baudelaire’s prose-poem The Flowers of Evil (1857) and Artificial Paradises, and now this brilliant exhibition, I certainly agree with them. His writing, vast yet connected, expresses time and again the incalculability of our lives.
L’oeil de Baudelaire continues at Musée de la Vie Romantique (16, rue Chaptal, 9th arrondissement, Paris) through January 29.